Fortune Magazine had a piece today concerning the rebuilding of the city. Most of these details we know, and maybe there’s some eye openers for us. The time that struck me was that the author lays almost all of the blame on the various levels of Guv’mit and not on the people of the affected area.
Yet it was here, late last year, that Frierson and several women of her acquaintance first planned to attack the powers that be. In this case the powers were the political establishments in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Washington, D.C. – establishments the women believed bore much of the responsibility both for the city’s collapse before Katrina last August 29 and for the paralytic pace of rebuilding.
Thin, blond, and blue-eyed, Frierson bears some resemblance, in her blazer and scarf, to a younger Nancy Reagan. For people who don’t live in New Orleans, her place in society might be summed up by her reputation as the city’s most successful residential real estate broker – the person to see about buying and selling its finest homes. Or one might note that at its annual Mint Julep Party the Junior League anointed Frierson the 2006 “Sustainer of the Year.”
In New Orleans terms, though, her elevated social status is best indicated by a single fact: Louis L. Frierson, her husband of 42 years, is a former Rex, the King of Carnival, the Monarch of Merriment, who headlines the grandiose private ball that officially closes Mardi Gras.
For years the city’s debs-and-dinner-parties set was proudly insular, its attention focused on its own affairs even as the city decayed. Corruption, inefficiency, and crime were the subject of ironic jokes over cocktails, not protests; the city’s disamenities were treated, all too often, as part of its storied charm. When New Orleans almost entirely missed the ’90s boom, it elicited little public dismay.
“We make a joke that’s not a joke,” says Elliott Stonecipher, a well-known political analyst in Shreveport. “Nobody in Louisiana knows what noblesse oblige is. New Orleans is a hotbed of civic apathy – the only city in the country where rich, powerful people don’t have their fingers in everything.”
It is wholly fitting that safeguarding New Orleans has fallen to its indigenous business class. But the lack of effective response by the political elite – and the lack of public concern about its inanition – is amazing.
Failing to rebuild a viable city would have consequences far beyond Louisiana. New Orleans’ two ports are, by tonnage, the nation’s biggest. They need to be – the region handles a third of the nation’s seafood and more than a quarter of its oil and natural gas. Some 4,000 oil and natural-gas platforms, linked by 33,000 miles of pipeline, spread out along the Louisiana coast. Among the facilities are the four largest refineries in the Western Hemisphere. Southern Louisiana is easily as important to the nation’s energy supply as the Persian Gulf.
Even as Louisiana politicians fulminated, LRA board member Sean Reilly met with Powell in January at his base in Amarillo. “We went to a luncheon place with a paper tablecloth,” says Reilly, a Baton Rouge executive who with his brother runs Lamar Advertising, the nation’s third-largest billboard firm.
Reilly was a former state legislator who had given up politics to concentrate on his business and his family. When Katrina hit, he jumped back in the fray. Reilly and Powell “pulled out pens and started drawing all over the table in terms of the numbers and categories of homeowners that needed to be covered and the philosophical choices that needed to be made.”
A central disagreement was the scope of federal responsibility. After providing aid for emergency services, the administration wanted to focus on the levee system, which Washington had long ago accepted as its purview, and on homeowners lacking flood insurance outside the officially designated floodplain – who had, at least in part, based their decision not to buy flood insurance on the grounds that the feds had stated their area was not at risk.
Most New Orleanians had a different view of Uncle Sam’s role. In a phrase heard again and again in the city, Katrina was a disaster made in Washington, not New Orleans. In most places water did not “overtop” the levees – the levees were broken by a storm surge they were supposed to withstand. In May a research team sponsored by the National Science Foundation and co-led by Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley engineering professor, concluded that these breaches, where the levees failed to meet design specifications, were responsible for four-fifths of the water that inundated greater New Orleans.
“The levees were designed incorrectly and built incorrectly,” Bea says. A former chief engineer for Shell, Bea designed scores of offshore oil platforms – “I’ve spent my whole professional life with hurricanes, so I’m kind of blunt about them.” Absent design and construction failures, he says, Katrina would have caused nothing more than “a few wet carpets and missing shingles.” (A forthcoming report by Louisiana State reaches a similar verdict.)
At the lunch with Powell, the LRA’s Reilly argued that “if you live behind a federally warranted levee and that levee fails, you shouldn’t be penalized if you don’t have flood insurance,” because the government has effectively promised householders that they won’t need insurance for those circumstances. Therefore, Washington had a moral obligation to all New Orleanians damaged by the flood, even the un- or underinsured.
We little folks here in New Orleans have some tough choices coming in the near future. This article lays it out pretty straight. The thing is: do we, the New Orleanians have it in us to fight back against those of our leaders that are in many ways ignoring our needs? I think we do.